VINYAN – The Visual Worlds of Benoît Debie

     |    Friday, der 19. September 2014

Recently, I watched two quite different films – the rock biopic “The Runaways“ and the subtle psychological horror film VINYAN that coincidentally turned out to have a connection. What do music video director Floria Sigismondi’s effective recreation of the mid-70s sleaze and glam scene in L.A. and a hallucinatory journey into the jungles of Thailand and Burma have in common?  Both films were shot by Belgian cinematographer Benoît Debie.

Debie has created the imagery of several remarkable films of the last decade and a half. He has become to enfant terrible Gaspar Noé what Michael Ballhaus was to Martin Scorsese. Debie shot Noé’s controversial (and in some countries banned), ultra-violent reverse chronological rape revenge drama “Irreversible” (2002) and follow up “Enter the Void” (2009), a neon-lit, amphetamine-fuelled headtrip set in Tokyo and told from the point of the view of the recently deceased main character. Day-glo colors also define Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” (2013), the divisive Bildungsroman, if you will, about four disaffected young women who use money from a restaurant heist to head to Fort Lauderdale for the annual bacchanale of sex and drugs, with hip hop and dubstep (well, Skrillex…) standing in for rock ’n‘ roll. Critics and audiences either slammed the film as exploitative trash or praised Korine for critiquing consumer culture without ridiculing the female lead characters. Almost universally acclaimed was Debie’s hyperkinetic cinematography.

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VINYAN (2008), Debie’s second of three collaborations with director Fabrice du Welz (released between du Welz’s 2004 debut “Calvaire” and 2014 crime drama “Colt 45”) , makes entirely different use of exotic locales. The film tells the story of Paul and Jeanne Bellmer (Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Béart, displaying the English language skills that netted her parts in such Hollywood flicks as “Mission: Impossible”), a wealthy philanthropic couple who lost their son in the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. Six months after the disaster, Paul seems to have accepted Joshua’s likely death. But when Jeanne sees a boy wearing a similar soccer jersey to Joshua’s in a video of kidnapped children in Burma, she decides to search for her son. The only way into Burma is with the help of the Triad, so the well-mannered but inscrutable mobster Thaksin Gao (Petch Osathanugrah) is enlisted. In the course of the journey, Jeanne and Paul, but even Thaksin Gao and his loyal lieutenant Sonchin fall apart in the netherworld of the Burmese jungle. Who is really the “vinyan”, a Thai term for restless undead spirit? With its themes of grief, guilt and the disintegration of “civilization”, VINYAN evokes “Apocalypse Now”, “Don’t Look Now”, “Lord of the Flies” and even Tennessee Williams‘ “Suddenly Last Summer”  without feeling derivative. (The likewise not dissimilar ANTICHRIST was released the following year.) Debie’s de-saturated and humid cinematography makes the oppressive, disorienting atmosphere of the jungle palpable. He creates a both hyperrealistic and highly allegorical, archaic world of great beauty and menace.

Debie’s next outings are Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut “Lost River” and “Everything Will Be Fine”, Wim Wenders‘ first narrative feature since 2008’s “Palermo Shooting”. Surreal neo-noir “Lost River” showcases flames and fire imagery as VINYAN did water, rain and moisture. “Everything Will Be Fine” sees Debie work in 3D for the first time. Debie’s talent lies in both his signature style and his versatility as he conjures a variety of unique cinematic worlds.

Natalie Gravenor
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